“Sweetie, it’s time to put down your iPad and set the table,” I say as I pull dinner out of the oven.
My son sits a few feet away, engrossed in a game on a tiny screen. He doesn’t respond, so I wait a minute and then try again.
“I think you’ve reached your time limit for today. Can you put that down now and set the table?”
After a long pause he looks up, “Sorry, mom, did you say something?”
I make the request again with a hint of irritation in my voice. “Seriously, buddy? This is the third time I’ve asked. Can you please turn that thing off and set the table? Dinner is ready.”
He’s annoyed and a little injured at my sharp response. “Geez, sorry. I didn’t hear you. I just needed to finish that one race or I’d lose all my points.”
The apology feels weak to me, but I sigh and let it go. Finally, he turns off his screen and sets the table, although he’s not pleased about the interruption.
I know this regular scenario with my son is not unique. While it would be easy to pick on kids “these days” or to highlight how the fixation with screens seem to be making people oblivious to their surroundings, these issues are not solely the fault of technology. They are a basic flaw of human nature and have existed since time began. We like to make our own agendas and aren’t fond of having them interrupted. Sadly, one of the main relationships where this happens is between humans and God.
We simply tune out messages we don’t want to hear from Him or we hear them and choose not to respond. Other times, we miss the point and react begrudgingly and with plenty of protesting. Once in a while, we respond and are surprised to discover the joy and fulfillment that come when we put our own agendas aside and trust God instead.
I think that is why the Christmas story is so striking to me. The characters in it don’t do the normal things people do, which is probably why God chose to reveal Himself to them.
Let’s start with Mary. She’s a teenage girl who receives a visit from an angel telling her that her whole life is about to become incredibly messy and complicated. Instead of recoiling in fear or asking questions like: Why me? What am I going to tell my betrothed, Joseph? What will people think of me? She responds by saying: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said…My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.” (Luke 1:38, 46-49, NIV) Her response reveals a trust in God and an acceptance of His will that is both humbling and inspiring. Not only does she listen and respond, she praises Him for using her to accomplish His plan.
Next, we have Joseph, her betrothed. Upon finding out the news that his fiancee is pregnant, he makes plans to divorce her quietly (Jewish betrothal was legally binding, not like engagements today). However, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and explains that Mary is miraculously pregnant with the long promised Messiah. When Joseph awakens, he doesn’t say: Why me? What are people in the community going to think about me going through with this marriage? Instead “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” (Matthew 1:24, NIV) Joseph listened and responded to God, going against the accepted and respected norms of his culture and community.
Third, we have the Shepherds watching over their flocks in a field outside Bethlehem. A great company of angels appears to them and tells them that the Savior has been born in Bethlehem. “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had ben told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed.” (Luke 2:15-18a)
It was probably not convenient to pack up and leave the field to find the Christ child. Yet, we don’t see the shepherds stopping to question whether it’s worth the effort. They respond to the angels and are so amazed by what they find that they can’t contain their excitement. After seeing Him, they immediately spread the word about the birth of Jesus. Despite being social outcasts, they don’t hesitate to share the miracle they’ve just witnessed with anyone they encounter.
Finally, we have the Magi. They’ve been watching the stars and travel from the east when they see the one indicating a King has been born. Imagine the time, effort and expense required for these Gentiles to embark on a journey to find the King of the Jews. Although they usually appear in nativity scenes, Scripture tells us that they arrived a while after Jesus was born (commentators range in estimates from a few months to two years). After finding the Messiah, worshipping Him and presenting him with gifts, they have a similar experience to Joseph. “And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route” (Matthew 2:12, NIV). Upon waking, they don’t question whether God has spoken– they simply respond by taking action. Their obedience prevents Herod from discovering the whereabouts of the infant King that he plans to murder to eliminate the threat to his throne.
Olive woodcarvings of Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and Magi are carefully arranged around the infant King lying in a manger atop my family’s piano. As I walk past them this year, I keep thinking about the crucial parts each of them played in the Christmas story. Mary could have been angry, indignant or fearful about being singled out by God. Instead, she responded with humility and obedience, praising God for choosing to use her as part of His plan. Joseph could have let the fear of going against his culture cause him to abandon Mary and miss out on being Jesus’ earthly father. The shepherds could have ignored the angels and rationalized that leaving the fields to find the Christ child in town was too inconvenient and not worth the effort. What an amazing moment in God’s plan they would have missed. The Magi could have appreciated the star, but avoided the massive undertaking of finding the King it heralded. Yet they spared no expense for the simple privilege of worshiping God in the form of a tiny baby.
What would each of these characters have missed if they’d been too busy, fearful, doubtful, cynical, frugal or inconvenienced to listen to God? Maybe we display their likenesses prominently during the Christmas season because their actions were so contrary to human nature. They inspire us to consider anew where we might be ignoring God or failing to respond to His promptings. God can and will use anyone to accomplish His will. If we choose not to listen to Him, He will find other willing hearts. We’ll just miss out on what He wants to do in and through us.
My prayer this Christmas season is that my agenda won’t distract me from God’s promptings. I pray that I’ll be so tuned into His Spirit that I’m ready to act when He nudges me. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and wise men give us an example that is worth following throughout the year. It was messy, complicated, costly and inconvenient for them to listen and respond, but it changed the course of their lives and all of human history. I think it was worth it.
Will you consider one area where you can tune into God more this season? Once you’ve heard from Him, will you trust Him and respond? Life might not stay neat and orderly, but I think you’ll find being used by God makes all of that seem insignificant by comparison.
Click on the link for a profound moment of celebrating the miracle of Christmas with Bebo Norman’s song “Come and Worship.”